Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hitchcock's Swan Song: "Family Plot"

Following a number of commercial and artistic successes in the 1950s and early 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock's career took a plunge after The Birds (1963). Starting with Marnie (1964), Hitchcock often found himself out of favor with the movie-going public and the critics. An exception was 1972's Frenzy, which some reviewers hailed as a comeback for the Master of Suspense. Personally, while I admire elements of Frenzy, Hitchcock's sole R-rated film leaves something of an unpleasant aftertaste. Thus, I was enthused that  his follow-up--and final film--was a Hitchcockian mix of suspense and humor. Make that a little suspense and a little humor.

Devane as a crafty kidnapper.
Family Plot (1976) unfolds with two parallel stories that predictably intersect at the halfway point. In the first, fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) and her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) learn that one of Blanche's wealthy, elderly clients wants to make amends for forcing her sister to give up a child for adoption years earlier. Blanche and George can earn $10,000 by finding the now-adult nephew. In the second plot, high-class criminals Arthur and Fran Adamson (William Devane and Karen Black) abduct rich people and hold them for ransom--the payment always being in the form of hard-to-trace diamonds.

George (Dern) in the cemetery.
The persistent George tracks Edward Shoebridge, the missing nephew, to a grave in a small-town cemetery. Initially bummed that Shoebridge apparently died in 1950, George realizes that the tombstone looks newer than others in the graveyard. When he later learns that the headstone was purchased with cash in 1965, he suspects that Shoebridge is still alive--but doesn't want to be found.

Family Plot has its admirers. Donald Spoto, in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, calls it "the purest film Hitchcock has given us since Psycho, and it is this meticulous structure and the lightness of tone that make it unique among recent Hitchcock works." Certainly, there's a comic element to the relationship between Blanche and George that recalls the offbeat humor of The Trouble With Harry. Indeed, Barbara Harris sometimes acts as if she was starring in a screwball comedy. Her broad attempts at humor seem totally at odds with the rest of the film, especially the scenes featuring sinister Arthur Adamson, who--in the capable hands of Devane--is one of Hitchcock's most heartless (if perhaps one-dimensional) villains.

Harris and Dern in the runaway car.
Surprisingly, Hitchcock struggles to generate any palpable suspense. A scene with Dern driving down a twisting mountain road without brakes starts out well, but its impact fades as it becomes too long and repetitious. Still, there are some trademark Hitchcock touches, such as Devane trying to hide a priest's body quickly, only to have a piece of a bright red robe peek out from under a black car door.

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who penned North By Northwest) reward discerning viewers with some subtle in-jokes: a street named Bates Avenue, someone smoking at a gasoline station, and discussions about having a "bird in hand." The film's best joke, though, lies with its ironic plot twist (not revealed here!). Interestingly, Lehman had earlier rejected an opportunity to make his own version of The Rainbird Pattern, the 1972 novel on which Family Plot was based.

Hitchcock was 75 when he completed Family Plot, his 53rd film and a modest success. During the final years of his life, he worked with Lehman and James Costigan on the screenplay for a spy film tentatively titled The Short Night. Hitchcock died in 1980 of renal failure.


  1. Great commentary, as usual. I'm not particularly fond of "Family Plot" compared to Hitch's other films and it didn't occur to me until I read this that there is a strange connection with the "senses" of humor in it with another of my least favorite Hitchcocks, The Trouble with Harry. I must re-watch it soon though because it's been quite a while.


  2. I really liked the opening scene of "Family Plot" where we follow a blonde who eventually meets with some men and then exits with William Devane. Barbara Harris's character is annoying, however, and unbelievable in a scene where there is a good chance she and her husband may die in a car wreck. I thought the film was overall more hit than miss. Thanks for a fun post, Rick!